Abraham and Sarah had waitied a long time for the LORD to fulfill His promise by granting them the conception of a child. In the days of the patriarchs, men practiced polygamy. Abraham was free to take a second wife at any time. In eighty-seven years, though, despite Sarah's bareness, he had chosen to remain faithful to his one wife. Maimonides says that the long wait for the birth of a promised son was Abraham's fifth great test of faith: the marriage test.
Abraham's wife, Sarah, had no hope of having children. Her child-bearing years were gone. Like many women in her position, Sarah's thoughts turned to consider adoption. She had a handmaid named Hagar who was young and fertile. "The best solution," Sarah thought, "would be to have Hagar conceive a child for Abraham and bear it on my behalf." Sarah said to Abraham, "Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai" (Genesis 16:2).
In desperation Sarah asked Abraham to take her maidservant Hagar as a second wife and impregnate her. She said to Abraham, "Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her" (Genesis 16:2). In the Hebrew, she says, "Perhaps I will be built through her." She meant the building of a family and a home. Sarah desperately longed to conceive and bear children, and without children, she felt like a building left unbuilt, like blueprints never executed.
Sarah's plan to have another woman conceive on her behalf seems strange to us, but probably not as strange as our use of artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization would seem to her.
Abraham gave in to Sarai's wishes. At first the plan seemed to be working well. Young and fertile Hagar conceived quickly. Sarah did not feel any joy over the good news, though. The plan backfired. Instead of bearing a son for Sarah, Hagar regarded herself as a wife in equal standing. The child was to be hers, and Abraham was to be hers. Sarah had taken a risk and lost.
Distressed and broken-hearted, Sarah went to Abraham to lodge a complaint and to inquire about his intentions. She said, "May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the LORD judge between you and me" (Genesis 16:5).
What would you do if you were Abraham? He had consented to the affair only at Sarah's behest. Now she comes lodging accusations at him, calling down curses on him and blaming him for her mistake. Most husbands would respond with a sharp rejoinder: "Hey, it was your bright idea, now it's your problem. Don't blame me." But Abraham was not like most husbands. Instead of returning Sarah's recriminations, he listened past the verbal abuse and heard the pain of her heart. She was wounded, hurting and desperately afraid of losing her husband to her maidservant.
Husbands ... live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)
Learn from Abraham's example. Abraham saw that Hagar no longer considered herself Sarah's servant. She considered herself as Sarah's peer. He told Sarah, "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight" (Genesis 16:6). Abraham affirmed that Hagar was still subordinate to Sarah. Sarah had not been replaced by the younger woman in Abraham's eyes—and he passed the test by remaining true to his wife.